"I've never been in love," Kelly Clarkson told USA Today recently. "I've never experienced certain things, and I think that's because I have this side of me that is shut off. Because I haven't found anybody yet … that I feel like, 'OK, you're worth breaking down that wall for.' I've never found that."
Love or not, however, it sure seems as if Kelly's had plenty of relationships … the majority of which were pretty deep and ended badly, if the 13 songs on her fifth album, Stronger, are in any way autobiographical. Fortunately, the 29-year-old Texan is working hard not to let those romantic misfires have the last word when it comes to her identity and perspective.
Kelly's no stranger to romantic au revoirs, that's for sure. Unlike some of her contemporaries, however, she typically doesn't descend into the inky abyss of soul-crushing woe that consumes so many pop, rock and country releases these days. Instead of "woe is me," it's more, "Oh no you don't, buster!"
Scrappy, feisty self-respect—not paralyzing angst—is what comes through over and over on Kelly's songs. And sometimes it's even a weapon of self-defense that's pointed in the right direction. Lead single "Mr. Know It All," for instance, tells off a deceptive, arrogant charmer: "I'm livin' my truth without your lies/Let's be clear, baby, this is goodbye." And reloading the same message, "What Doesn't Kill You (Stronger)" hits listeners with, "You think you got the best of me/Think you've had the last laugh/ … Baby, you don't know me/'Cause you're dead wrong/ … What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." Similar sentiments turn up on post-breakup songs "You Love Me," "Einstein" and "The War Is Over."
Two tracks ("Standing in Front of You" and "Breaking Your Own Heart") implore gun-shy guys to take the plunge and commit. A couple of songs expose emotional vulnerability as Kelly sings about a longing to be loved and accepted unconditionally. "Dark Side" asks a would-be suitor, "Everybody's got a dark side/Do you love me?/Can you love mine?/Nobody's picture perfect/But we're worth it/ … Will you love me/Even with my dark side?" Elsewhere on the song: "Don't run away/Just tell me that you will stay."
"Honestly" longs for the truth, even when it's hard ("Would you face me?/Make me listen to the truth, even if it breaks me?"). But it's "I Forgive You" that may well be the strongest track on Stronger, both lyrically and musically. This upbeat bubblegum rocker recalls the feel-good vibe of Kelly's smash 2005 hit "Since U Been Gone" and pairs it with an even better message: forgiveness. "I forgive you," Kelly tells a former flame, "We were just a couple of kids/Trying to figure out how to live/Doing it our way/No shame, no blame/'Cause the damage is done/And I forgive you." Kelly ponders the possibility of holding onto bitterness, but she concludes it won't do her any good: "If I hate you, what does that do?/So I breathe in and I count to 10."
"You Can't Win" reflects on the reality that there are always going to be critics, no matter what you say or do. It strives to encourage "the one who doesn't quite fit in" not to internalize criticism too deeply.
Kelly rarely deals directly with the subject of sex. But several songs allude to sharing a bed (and/or cohabiting) with someone. On "What Doesn't Kill You (Stronger)," she taunts an ex by singing, "You know the bed feels warmer/Sleeping here alone." "Einstein" says, "Here's your keys, your bags, your clothes, and now get out of my place." (That song also lashes out, "I may not be Einstein, but I know dumb plus dumb equals you"). On "Standing in Front of You," she sings, "You can close your eyes, don't worry/I'll still be here in the morning." And, finally, we hear, "In the night when you miss me/You'll remember how much you miss me" ("The War Is Over").
"You Can't Win" places homosexuality on equal footing with heterosexual marriage: "If you're straight, why aren't you married yet/If you're gay, why aren't you waving a flag?" The song also includes the album's only language concerns, which amount to one use of "p‑‑‑" and a wink at a partially pronounced s-word.
It's been nearly a decade already since Kelly Clarkson came out on top at the end of American Idol's inaugural season. She's made the most of it, effectively blurring the boundaries between country, rock, pop and soul.
Her raspy, throaty and earnest vocals certainly match the content of her songs here. She doesn't blithely suffer deceptive fools, nor is she a wilting wallflower whose entire sense of self depends upon the love of a man. But despite what she told USA Today, a few of her songs indicate that she's no stranger to intimacy—both emotional and physical. And it's the latter attribute that weakens Stronger.